Philip Glass, Seen and Heard Through the Cinematic Mind of Peter Greenaway (1983)

Long­time Simp­sons-watch­ers sure­ly remem­ber Home­r’s weak­ly feigned enthu­si­asm for an evening with Philip Glass: “Just an evening?” Yet for some enthu­si­asts of the com­poser’s repet­i­tive, mes­mer­iz­ing music, just an evening real­ly would­n’t sat­is­fy. Run­ning over five hours, Glass’ opera Ein­stein on the Beach arguably requires more than an evening by itself. If you don’t feel up to so exten­sive a lis­ten­ing expe­ri­ence, rest assured that you’ve most like­ly heard, and may well have enjoyed, his com­po­si­tions before. A pro­lif­ic crafts­man of film scores, Glass has made music to accom­pa­ny, among many oth­er pic­tures, Errol Mor­ris’ The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War; God­frey Reg­gio’s tril­o­gy of Koy­aanisqat­siPowaqqat­si, and Naqoyqat­si; and the hor­ror favorite Can­dy­man as well as its sequel, Can­dy­man: Farewell to the Flesh. You can learn more about what exact­ly goes on in Glass’ music and how he thinks about it in Philip Glass, which comes direct­ed by Peter Green­away as one of four 1983 por­traits of Amer­i­can com­posers.

If you watch Green­away’s films, you might find your­self sur­prised at the rel­a­tive straight­for­ward­ness of this project: no elab­o­rate set design, no fix­a­tion on lists and sys­tems, few grim­ly dry wise­cracks, and nobody more eccen­tric than Glass him­self. Between extend­ed seg­ments of Glass and his ensem­ble in con­cert, we see inter­views with Glass and his play­ers. (A sim­ple set­up, yes, but not with­out its points of strange­ness: each inter­vie­wee appears with a dif­fer­ent, always near­ly silent inter­view­er, some­times sep­a­rat­ed by a high­ly con­spic­u­ous cam­era reflec­tion.) We learn about how tran­scrib­ing Ravi Shankar’s music gave Glass the idea of “work­ing in a rhyth­mic struc­ture, not a har­mon­ic or nar­ra­tive one,” how hir­ing the sound man from the Fill­more East grant­ed his music a new tech­no­log­i­cal dimen­sion, and the kind of heck­ling he endures even after becom­ing famous. (“We get scream­ers,” he admits, quot­ing their shouts of “This isn’t music!” and “Why are you doing this to me?”) To the best of my knowl­edge, Glass has nev­er scored any of Green­away’s fea­tures. But watch­ing this doc­u­men­tary and notic­ing their shared fas­ci­na­tion with form and rep­e­ti­tion, their lack of enthu­si­asm for nar­ra­tive, their free­dom from “clear­ly pop­ulist inten­tions,” and their ten­den­cy to attract pre­dictable dis­ap­proval, I won­der why not.

Relat­ed con­tent:

A Min­i­mal Glimpse of Philip Glass

Philip Glass Com­pos­es for Sesame Street (1979)

Koy­aanisqat­si at 1552% Speed

Philip Glass & Lou Reed at Occu­py Lin­coln Cen­ter: An Art­ful View

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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